16 February 2007

And You Say Eternal Life is a *Good* Thing?

Eternal life sounds more like a curse than a reward. For all the times the prospect is mentioned in the Good Book, it's irritating that the idea isn't fleshed out a bit more. Granted, life eternal may be more of an abstract concept of a divine and other-worldly hereafter, but I would argue that the phrase was chosen because it was a pretty good approximation of what is being signified.

Given self-awareness, are boredom and misery inevitable as time approaches infinity? This is the heart of the matter.

So what is being signified? Western philosophy has come up with a number of different approaches to what exactly "eternal" time means, and we will now focus on two general models. One conception, popular in Christian thought, is of eternity as a "non-successive, [and] therefore non-temporal mode of experience" in which one has a "life of infinite duration...."[1] But there is a tension between thinking of the eternal afterlife as a "duration"—no matter how qualified—and Boethius' portrait of time. Good old Boethius envisioned eternal time as an all-embracing present. Instead of past, present, and future, the mode of eternity encompasses and subsumes tense.

A second common conception is "eternity as lack of temporal beginning and end, but not lack of duration."[2] Proponents of this model generally are concerned about how a model of eternity like Boethius' or even Augustine's affect God's relationship with human beings. All tied up with the issue of eternity are other concerns like the immutability of God, divine perfection, and contingency...let's save these for another time.

This second interpretation seems to be closer to what the Greek means. (I'm no Classics professor, but I know how to use lexicons and dictionaries.) Of the 45 instances of the word "eternal" in the King James Version of the New Testament, 42 instances were the translation of the Greek word αιωνιος (aiōnios, "perpetual (also used of past time, or past and future as well)...eternal, for ever, everlasting..."[3]). But this may only be semantics. The precise intentions of the authors will always be somewhat of a mystery to us. Be that as it may, it *is* clear that it's unlikely that "eternal"/αιωνιος was employed by the authors of Scripture in any way as sophisticated as Boethius'.

There is a point in Sartre's "No Exit" in which the protagonist, Garcin, realizes what makes Hell just so bad. The valet is showing Garcin into his room in Hell and Garcin notices that there are no beds. He asks the valet if anyone sleeps in Hell and is told that no one ever does. Garcin thinks a minute and says, "So it comes to this; one doesn't need rest. Why bother about sleep if one isn't sleepy? That stands to reason, doesn't it? Wait a minute, there's a snag somewhere; something disagreeable. Why, now, should it be disagreeable? ...Ah, I see; it's life without a break."[4] Garcin wishes only to blink his eyes once more. Existence becomes a Sisyphean task.

I find it strange that, even though properly a mystery, our ultimate reward is left so vague. The closest Jesus gets to an elaboration is in Luke 18:29 (RSV)--"'Truly, I say to you, there is no man who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive manifold more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.'"

But life eternal is not about material things in the present, but about new life through Christ...but is this the problem or the solution? Nietzsche cried foul at the (especially) Christian "ascetic ideal" of Pearl of Great Price over against Will to (this-worldly) Power. Mortality gives us urgency and, ironically enough, vitality. If this life is all we have, this mortal coil is anything but trivial.

Is our fear of non-existence, of being erased, so intense and all-consuming that we would rather be sick to death of life? When Odysseus traveled to Hades, he saw the late Achilles. Trying to cheer him up, Odysseus remarks that, for Achilles, "Death should have lost its sting." Achilles reproaches his old friend: "Do not speak soothingly to me of death, Odysseus. I should choose to serve as the serf of another, rather than to be lord over the dead."[4] Swift-footed Achilles, a serf! But maybe this tale tells us more than the fact that death is agony. In a sacrifice one gives the gods what is most valuable and precious. What could be more precious than the gift of will? In sacrificing the will--the will to be in control of one's own destiny, to be free, to seize the day--the die is cast; there is no do-over. Surely, with so terrible a sacrifice the gods will not turn a deaf ear. "How can I be denied when I have denied *myself* for the benefit of the gods?"

Imagine the most pleasant, most desirable environment for the enduring afterlife. Jamming with Hendrix and Joplin, eating all you want without getting fat (can't!), no pain or worrying. Everything is ideal. But as time continues, even Ambrosia starts to taste like cardboard. In *Groundhog Day*, Phil Connors (Bill Murray) only has everlasting life for a couple years, but gets so sick with the predictability and sameness of each repeating day that he kills himself several times, though it does him no good. (Side note: Phil's everlasting life is a strange kind of the type: a possibly eternal temporal period "between" the present and the finite duration of time before death, possibly followed by a definitely eternal period of time. Wow!) So would Hell really be any worse?

The whole eternal-life/eternal-hellfire construct is so dualistic and misguided as to cause suspicion and so naively simplistic that one ends up being completely disgusted by *both* possibilities. The best one can hope for is to be eaten up by the void from whence we came.

[1] "Eternity and the Afterlife," D. P. Walker. Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 27. (1964), pp. 241-250.
[2] "Eternity," Anthony C. Thiselton. A Concise Encyclopedia of the Philosophy of Religion.
[3] Strong's New Testament Greek Lexicon.
[4] The Odyssey, 11:480; 11:486.

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